Rubio prosecuted the most effective case against Trump, in part, by flipping the script on him around a memorable episode from New Hampshire.
Trump wasn’t answering with details of a health care plan – “You’ll have so many different plans” – when Rubio sensed an opening.
“Now he's repeating himself,” Rubio said.
Trump reminded him of the debate from early February: “I watched him repeat himself five times four weeks ago.”
“I saw you repeat yourself five times four seconds ago,” Rubio countered.
It was a clear attempt to get under Trump’s skin, and it seemed to work at times. But the attacks might have been more effective spaced out a bit – and if they had flown with similar ferocity starting last summer, before Republican voters started buying what Trump was selling.
There were flashes of the old Trump, insulting a questioner for having “very few” listeners, saying Rubio sweats so much it looked like he just came out of a swimming pool, taunting Cruz to “swing for the fences” in attacking him on stage.
“This guy’s a choke artist, and that guy’s a liar,” Trump said, referring to Rubio and Cruz, on his right and on his left. “Other than that, I rest my case.”
Cruz, debating in his hometown, in a must-win state, joined Rubio in sowing doubts about Trump.
“I want you to think about if this man is the nominee, having the Republican nominee on the stand in court being cross-examined about whether he committed fraud,” Cruz said.
The night, though, belonged to Rubio, who had one of the best debate nights of any candidate a few weeks after having one of the worst. For voters and party leaders looking for a Trump alternative, they saw one on display.
“A deal is a deal,” Trump said, speaking about bringing peace to the Middle East.
But the calendar and the math are stubborn. Rubio has no realistic path that doesn’t involve other candidates leaving the race, and fast. None of the other candidates, save Trump, do either.
Rubio showed it’s possible to beat Trump in a debate. That’s not the same, though, as showing he can be beaten in the election.